I don’t envy the poor souls who had to come up with the title for Netflix’s new docuseries, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. I suspect they ended up picking the letter ‘M’ just to pare the descriptors down. Each of the series’ seven episodes on the life of zookeeper Joe Exotic are packed with such unbelievable circumstances that they could all warrant a feature-length film.
The show’s main focus is on the longstanding feud between a theatrical zookeeper at Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, and Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit educational sanctuary cosigned by PETA. We know from the start that this tension culminates in a murder-for-hire plot, and Tiger King lays out the strange trip that leads them there. Thankfully, neat pacing and organization of events leaves even the weirdest entangled webs surrounding its messy subject easy to follow.
Tiger King does an excellent job of juxtaposing the two people at odds, drawing on the irony of the similarities between the rivals and their cartoonish personas. The funniest parts of the docuseries include footage from Joe Exotic’s several low-budget music videos, in which he sings about his love for guns, his two husbands, and of course, tigers. Meanwhile, when Baskin isn’t decked out head-to-toe in cat-print, she’s clad in a contrived hippie outfit that looks like it came in a Halloween costume kit at Party Warehouse. Photos of her marriage to her third husband look straight out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary:
Other major players in the big cat subculture are exactly the type of fearless people you’d expect to own a pet tiger, with checkered pasts and criminal rap sheets that would make it difficult for them to blend into society and maintain a conventional job. Take Mario Tabraue, a former cocaine kingpin who keeps a private collection of exotic animals in his palatial Miami estate. After Tabraue casually recounts that he served 12 years in prison for participating in the dismemberment and burning of an FBI informant, he explains his passion for keeping a menagerie: “Animals don’t judge you.”
Then there are people like Joe Exotic, who use the seemingly supernatural control they have over wild beasts to boost their fragile-yet-oversized egos. Doc Antle, a 60-year-old man with a soul patch and multiple younger girlfriends who refer to him as Bhagavan (translation: Lord), is a particularly revolting example of this. A woman named Barbara Fisher says her love of animals drove her to move to Antle’s for-profit wildlife preserve in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, at about 20 years old. Fisher recounts that living in a cockroach-infested space comparable to a horse stall made her consider sleeping with Antle, as it was suggested that sex would help improve her deplorable living conditions. She was too scared to back out of a breast implant surgery that was arranged without her consent, but says she looked forward to the opportunity to rest after the operation, as it was the only time she’d been allowed to take a break from hard labor.
When the disturbing power dynamics of Joe Exotic’s sex life are eventually laid bare, it jars the viewer into remembering that there’s a sinister side to the clownish man who drives around singing along to his own recorded music. At first glance, Tiger King may look like another Fyre Fest-esque documentary: a catastrophic series of events that are easy to laugh at thanks to the hot-mess egomaniac at the center of it all. But audiences should prepare themselves for some deeply distressing moments of darkness uncovered in Joe Exotic’s story, particularly surrounding his dysfunctional relationships with his husbands.
At the backbone of both the documentary and Exotic’s enterprise are the humble employees who work tirelessly in the background to take care of the hundreds of big cats living on the premises. Animal keeper Kelci “Saff” Saffery returns to work five days after getting mauled by a tiger in an incident that requires her arm to be amputated. They remain largely unfazed by the literal circus that is their daily lives, delivering deadpan lines with charming comedic timing. Joshua Dial, who served as Exotic’s 2016 presidential campaign manager, simply sums up the experience with little intonation: “It was the worst experience of my life.” The tale of the Tiger King is so ripe for Hollywood that it will probably be dramatized some day, but it’s hard to imagine anyone telling the story better than these employees.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness is now on Netflix.